“Get over here… Take this!”
As Gaddy swung his hammer-ax up the beads of sweat that flew from his muscular arms glinted in the gleam of the treasure of light that Firine held up to light their way.
Gaddy’s mighty blow landed on the enemy’s shield, sending out a shower of sparks. Like a flash of lightning, Dolph thrusted with his longsword in the gap Gaddy had created in the enemy’s defenses.
Dolph’s sword pierced Lizard Soldier, Conroe’s throat. It collapsed and disappeared into the cave’s shadows.
“Don’t look, Firine!”
“I’m okay… Behind you!”
Abban reacted immediately to Firine’s warning and instinctively ducked down.
Something that resembled a black lightning bolt passed through where his head had just been.
The scream came from Dolph. Though countless generations had passed, there was no mistaking the great black dog of the Shadow Paladins. After all, it was Dolph who had sicced the dogs on Abban and Gaddy.
The fierce howls echoed into the darkness.
The dog held back, waiting to attack. He was a cunning foe.
“Abban! Protect Firine!”
“You don’t need to tell me twice!”
Almost as if Gaddy’s shout was a signal, the dog howled and struck out viciously at Abban and Firine.
Abban’s sword followed the great black dog Fullbau as he came into the light, tracing its erratic movements.
However, as masterful a swordsman as Abban was, the dog was even quicker than he could manage.
“It’s so fast!”
Fang and sword brandished but did not make contact. Abban and the dog faced each other down.
“Close your eyes!”
Abban immediately did so as soon as he heard Firine’s voice ring out.
There was an explosion of light and smoke between the two travelers and Fullbau. The dog yelped out in surprise.
“Run!” Abban shouted to Dolph and Gaddy as he took Firine by the hand.
“Back to the surface?” asked Gaddy.
“No, further in! We must push forward! Look, the way back is blocked.”
Hearing Dolph’s words, Gaddy looked back, and his eyes widened.
The passage in the cave that they had descended through just before was coming alive and forming into a wall, blocking them in.
“Welcome to my hermitage. It has been an age since I last saw such young faces.”
A low, almost earth-shaking voice echoed out from the door just by the entrance to the cave.
It was obvious to all of them that the translucent monk floating in the air before them was not a living being, but Gaddy started to panic from his sudden appearance. It was amusing to see the well-built 13-year-old cling to Abban, Firine, and even the stranger Dolph in fright.
In contrast the other three travelers didn’t seem fazed by the ghost in the darkness. The knight who protected buried treasure in an underground ruin, a witch’s assistant, and the son of a bookstore owner who grew up reading about myths and legends were all naturally well versed in all things supernatural, so it was to be expected that Gaddy was the only one who reacted so badly.
“I am the Dragon Monk, Gojo.”
“Brother Gojo… But you’re a Gillman. (Note: A humanoid race who lived in the water. They were said to live for up to 500 years.) But it has been more than a millennia since the New Era…!” exclaimed Dolph. It seemed he was still in shock after seeing the vision of Blaster Dark earlier.
“I am indeed Gojo. And this is my domain, the Dead Monk’s Hermitage. Do you understand now, Shadow Paladin?”
“Our traditions tell us to protect this cave and shrine from the immortal monks…”
“I don’t know about any such traditions, but as you can see, we are far from immortal. I left my flesh and bones behind a long time ago.”
Gojo shrugged. His robes were as translucent as the rest of him, and they seemed to blow about in the wind.
“Now, you have two options. The first is to give me the treasure and leave this place.”
As Gojo said this Firine took out the treasure—the blue and white necklace with the red gemstone—and showed it to the monk.
“Yes, that’s the one. The other option is to keep the treasure, and to proceed further into the cave.”
“What will we find there?” asked Abban.
“Only those who dare enter may know.”
“If we hand the treasure over, then we’re done, right?” asked Gaddy.
“You’re not wrong. This is your choice to make. You may well be qualified to get one step closer to the truth.”
“Did you say ‘truth’? The Shadow Paladins know nothing of any ‘qualifications’ or any tales of returning the treasure,” said Dolph.
“Much time has passed in the outside world. In days gone by people would occasionally come here when they heard that there was a legendary treasure hidden within.”
“My aunt is a witch; she was researching this treasure of light. It only reacted when we touched it. I wonder why we could see the vision when others could not?” pondered Firine.
“If it is answers you seek, then you must open a new door. That is the terrible privilege of youth.”
These were Gojo’s parting words as he turned away and disappeared:
“The door can only be opened once. Choose carefully.”
“What did he mean by the door only being able to be opened once!? Damn that ghost!”
They ran until they felt they were a safe distance from Fullbau. Gaddy let out a large sigh.
“It seems like that hole was a one-way kind of deal.”
Abban shrugged, while Gaddy forced out a laugh. Their journey started when the two boys fell into that one-way hole in Sacred Albion.
“It certainly seems like this cave itself is a threat, with the way it blocked the exit. Who could have built such a place?” wondered Dolph. It was obvious that humor was not going to work with the black knight.
“That monk Gojo said that we were ‘qualified.’ That lizard soldier, the black dog… Did the cave summon them because we’re here?” Firine muttered to herself as she touched the dry wall of the cave. She was talking about Lizard Soldier, Conroe and Fullbau.
The group had a long discussion, eventually reaching the unanimous decision to head further into the cave. As soon as they decided such, the lizard soldier and black dog appeared, as though they came straight out of the walls.
“…Right! Firine, was that magic earlier?”
“It was one of my aunt’s specialties. It glows intensely when struck. It also releases a fragrant smoke.”
Firine pointed at the bag on her waist.
“It’s not magic per se, more a chemical reaction that even I can control. It’s a formulation of metal powders. It seemed to work well on that dog. I hope he didn’t get trapped by that wall… That would be terrible.”
“Stop it. We didn’t have time to care about things like that. What’s important is that you saved us,” Abban reassured Firine.
“If there is a connection between the ‘qualifications’ that we possess and the enemies that came to attack us, as Firine suggested, then what connects the visions we have been seeing with the necklace?”
Abban nodded as Dolph posed this question. He wondered that as well.
“It’s worth thinking about. He may be from a different era, but the Lizard Soldier, Conroe was a citizen of the Dragon Empire.”
“And Fullbau came from Keter Sanctuary. He is the ancestor to the hounds we still use today.”
“Wait a minute. I’ve heard about a combination of the Dragon Empire and Keter Sanctuary somewhere before…”
A tremor came from the other side of the blocked exit. Now that they seemed to be safe, they became more aware of their surroundings. They had found themselves in a surprisingly spacious area.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” warned Gaddy.
“Remember the battle in the vision? The first things we saw were a black dog and a lizard soldier. After that was…”
Abban stood by his friend Gaddy, still protecting Firine even as they tried to recall what they saw.
The rumbling started getting closer, until something appeared beneath the treasure of light.
“Dragon Knight, Nehalem!”
The dragon knight and black lancer were spurred on by Firine’s and Dolph’s cries and attacked the group.
The first strike was Dolph’s, who rushed Nehalem with his longsword. He was hoping to take out the knight before he had time to bring his dragon to bear.
He fought back against the dragon’s flames with a flourish of his cloak. He couldn’t keep the flames back entirely but managed to prevent total immolation, cleaving through flesh and bone. A burn is a small price to pay when facing a dragon knight.
However, the knight blocked with his shield and thrust with his own sword. Dolph dodged the attack then adjusted his stance to prepare for the next blow.
Abban and Gaddy jumped as soon as they heard Firine’s cry.
Blaster Javelin’s spear swept by their feet, creating a wind almost as strong as a whirlwind.
Abban slashed back at the lancer as soon as he landed, while Gaddy leaped again and swung his hammer-ax down on their enemy. However, Blaster Javelin was able to raise his spear up in time to catch it.
“That all you got!?”
Gaddy continued to hammer down as though he were striking a billet on his anvil, and Abban started thrusting at the black lancer. The combined attacks started to overwhelm Blaster Javelin. Gaddy was a regular helper in his father’s shop, and Abban was a legendary swordsman.
Blaster Javelin dodged Gaddy’s blow then disappeared into the darkness.
As Firine called out something rolled under Dragon Knight, Nehalem’s feet.
Dolph, who still had his sword deep in the knight’s shoulder, jumped down and rushed back to the others.
In the same motion he dragged the children—to Dolph, the other three were still just children—to the ground.
The smoke and roaring boom spread out.
Rubble started to fall from the ceiling.
The dragon’s death throes echoed throughout the cave.
“I had no idea your explosives were so potent… You should have told us.”
Gaddy’s normally dark hair was white with debris. He coughed up dust that he had accidentally swallowed.
“No, no, that was just fine. We had no chance against that dragon on our own,” reassured Abban. His hair was even whiter than usual.
“This is the worst thing that could have happened to us underground. A cave-in. We are all very lucky to still be alive,” added Dolph. His usually all-black armor was now a dusty grey. After putting Firine back down he started to brush off the debris.
Having been protected by Dolph, Firine had barely any dust on her.
“No, it’s as Abban said. We owe you our lives. Still, to have met a Blaster knight in battle…”
Dolph stood up, looking ahead into the darkness, his voice filled with emotion. As the dust cleared, they could make out a passage to a more open area, not just a continuation of the cave.
“I can see a door.”
“Huh?” Gaddy couldn’t help but say after seeing it for himself.
“This place is huge.”
“Wait. We shouldn’t just rush in there.”
The area was large enough that it could have been a meeting hall. At the other end of the hall was a huge gate, the kind that you might find at the entrance to a castle.
“Only those who dare enter may know.”
Abban recalled the Dragon Monk Gojo’s words.
“I wonder what’s on the other side of the door.”
“Well, this cave is protected by a ghost and a dragon, so there must be something good down here.”
Gaddy licked his lips.
“You seem calm,” Abban remarked.
“We can’t dither here forever, what should we do…?”
Abban and Firine quickly walked into the hall.
“Aah, so you’re one of those. Fearless when facing the unknown.”
Gaddy shrugged as he met Dolph’s dazed look.
“Still, hold up! Don’t take Firine in there with you,” Abban responded as the two youths caught up.
“Why have we been led down here? What’s on the other side of the door? I want to know.”
“And what’s all this about ‘qualifications’? I’ve always been a meddler; I need to know everything. If…”
Firine tried to smile, but they all knew exactly what she had left unsaid.
“You understand, do you not? What came next in the vision,” continued Dolph.
“One or both of them may appear. Erm…”
Gaddy shuddered. He was scared to even say their names.
“Surely there must be something we can do,” Abban lamented.
“Even if only one appears, they were both dragons of legendary strength. There is nothing we can do. They had no weaknesses,” admitted Dolph. As he said this, he took off his cloak and wrapped it up. He said there was nothing they could do, but he was preparing for a fight. He was a knight to the end.
Just as they reached the center of the chamber, it appeared.
Something writhing appeared in the darkness above them.
As Firine responded Gaddy put out a hand to keep her safe.
“Your explosives. We need everything you got.”
“I want to fight as well!”
“No, we can’t be slowed down… Ah, sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
“Firine, we need to be able to focus on the fight ahead. So, place all your explosives, then head to the door and see what’s behind it.”
Dolph nodded from behind Abban.
Firine looked up to the ceiling where something was appearing, glanced at her three companions, and then handed them the bag from her waist.
Firine ran, spurred on by the shout that came from behind her. The witch Branagh’s apprentice, the new adventurer, the friend who was cherished by her traveling companions.
The darkness above them swirled violently, and then finally coalesced.
It was an enormous humanoid figure, with shiny, glossy skin that almost looked like armor. It had hard wings, a long, supple tail, and was holding a huge double-bladed spear. But beyond all of that, it was the sheer feeling of confidence and strength that emanated from the figure, clad as it was in a shining black light, that was proof of why this dragon had become the stuff of legend.
“Phantom Blaster Dragon…”
Dolph’s voice was filled with despair.
Even after all those eons, during which time the lore had been warped and twisted, the evil and accursed Phantom Blaster Dragon was spoken of in hushed tones. Dolph only heard the name as a child, when the Shadow Paladins wanted to scare their children.
A flash and bang exploded up into the dark.
The explosives that Gaddy had thrown exploded around the dragon.
“A good outcome. Not bad.” Dolph couldn’t help but admit his admiration.
One way to handle an opponent who massively outclasses you in strength is to abandon any element of surprise and just hit them with everything you’ve got. There’s always a chance you might just break through.
“Did it work?”
The air cleared above them, and the unharmed dragon dove down.
Abban, Gaddy, and Dolph fled in different directions, but before they could gather their bearings the great dragon’s wings threw out a gust of wind that pushed them all to the ground.
The dragon roared.
Firine made it to the great doorway.
The light emanating from the treasure had become so bright that it lit up the whole chamber.
She heard the explosion come from behind. Firine felt the shock wave crash over her, but she was able to stay upright.
She placed her hand on the door.
She pushed. Nothing happened.
She tried pulling at the edge of the hard wood doors. Still nothing.
She formed a fist and knocked hard on the door, though she didn’t think it would do anything.
Firine refused to give up. She kept on trying, until her ears worked their way out from under her chestnut hair.
“Open up! At least tell us why we’re here!”
She started to cry. She hated being so weak, so useless.
“Ugh!” “Ah!” “Argh!”
She heard the sound of wind from behind, and the cries of her friends.
The next words that came out of Firine’s mouth surprised even her.
“I will keep beating you until you give in! I am Firine, wielder of the treasure of light, open!”
The battle, if one could call it that, was one-sided.
The attack came swiftly.
Phantom Blaster Dragon flung Gaddy to the edge of the chamber with a single swing of its arm, and a blow from its spear knocked Abban’s sword from his hand, knocking him down with the shock wave. The return swing decimated Dolph’s defenses, sending his helmet flying.
The accursed dragon let out an unholy roar.
The three men stood their ground.
Phantom Blaster Dragon slowly raised its black spear.
“Here you go.”
Firine handed the treasure of light, a blue and white necklace with a red jewel, to the Dragon Monk Gojo. Gojo nodded silently and then took the treasure in his seemingly incorporeal hand. It disappeared instantly.
Behind her, Dolph, Abban, and Gaddy, standing in their torn cloaks and bandages, nodded.
The damage from their earlier battle was extensive. They were all overcome by fatigue.
“We couldn’t do it…”
Dolph spoke in a whisper.
“You all returned alive. That is no small feat.”
“I missed this treasure…”
Gaddy tried to laugh, but soon had to hold his stomach in pain.
“You should thank your parents for giving you such a strong body. Not everyone could take such a beating and live.”
Gaddy shot a nasty look at Gojo, as though asking him what a ghost would know.
“Phantom Blaster Dragon disappeared. Was it… just a vision?”
“I wonder. Once again, you should be proud that you made it out of there alive.”
Abban fell silent, still unsure about what was going on.
“I will go.”
Firine urged her friends on, and then loaded the luggage onto the donkey that Gojo had brought into the cave.
“Everything is as you want it.”
“No. Nothing is as I had hoped. That’s quite a feat.”
Firine’s voice broke as she heard the monk’s kind words.
“If I may.”
“What is it?”
“I saw what lay behind that door. That was when Phantom Blaster Dragon disappeared.”
Gojo’s eyes widened upon hearing the girl’s confession.
“Goodbye, Dragon Monk Gojo.”
“Farewell, brave young adventurers. May you be blessed with good fortune on your journey.”
As Firine bowed and headed for the exit, she was sure she saw the monk smile at her.
“Hey, what the hell was that!?”
They all looked back at Gaddy as he blurted that out.
The landscape had changed.
They were no longer in the spring snows of the Longhorn Mountains.
The land that lay before them was arid. On top of that, an enormous volcano was rising up in front of them.
As Abban looked around to peer back into the cave, he saw it disappear into the side of the mountain.
“Where are we?” asked Firine.
“I have no idea… I don’t know what just happened.”
Dolph seemed so distracted by trying to place where they were that he almost seemed to have forgotten he was injured.
“I’ve never heard of a volcano like this!”
Gaddy, who was sitting on the donkey, shook his head as he looked at a map.
“Well, that’s what you get for sleeping through geography class. Anyway, there are no active volcanoes like this in Keter Sanctuary.”
Abban sighed. Beside him, Dolph let out an even bigger sigh.
“Whatever the case may be, if we are no longer by the Dead Monk’s Hermitage, then I have been separated from my dear companion, Virulence Dragon.”
It seemed there was a bond between the Shadow Paladin and his dragon that the others could not fully understand.
“What now?” asked Gaddy.
“We have no choice but to go home. I’m sure our parents must be worried about us,” sighed Abban.
Dolph looked deadly serious.
“But even if we find a way back, how can we return after failing our mission?”
Firine smiled as her friends turned to look at her. It was a refreshing smile that brought some light into that dark, depressing place.
“How about some tea? We’ll think much more clearly after we’ve rested.”
They all looked at each other and sighed. In such a dire situation, no man could resist such an offer. Especially coming from Firine, their fellow companion who was also blessed by the legendary Dragon Monk Gojo.
They may have heard it then—the sound of the “blessing horn” echoing out from the Dragonia Mountains.
Deep within the Dead Monk’s Hermitage, Gojo stood in front of the doors, eyes closed.
When he eventually spoke, it was the words of a master praising an apprentice.
The ghost stretched out his hand.
The enormous doors opened without making a sound.
Before him lay a vast space.
A single path led into the distance.
At the end of the path was a rock, with a sword stuck in it.
And in front of that…
A creature as white as fallen ash, as motionless as the frozen earth, as ancient as the rocks on which it lay.
An unimaginably ancient dragon, the flame of the apocalypse, lay there in all its terrible glory.